From the editor: The water we swim in

By James E. Mattson | 03/13/2017

Why would you change something when it’s all you know? 

Picture of shark

I came across this quote awhile back: “Of what is significant in one’s own existence one is hardly aware … . What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?” Not knowing the answer to that deep question, I downloaded Out of My Later Years: The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words, by Albert Einstein, Kindle edition. At $1.99, wisdom at a bargain-basement price.

James MattsonApart from the somewhat jarring switch from first person in the book’s title to third person in the subtitle, I immediately sensed a bond between Al and me: “Through his own words” is similar to the former title of this column—“In my own words”—and what I’m writing these days also comes “out of my later years,” for now at least.

Let’s do a thought experiment. If I read and embrace the thoughts of Albert Einstein, I’m thinking like a genius, right? And if I’m thinking like a genius, doesn’t that make me a genius? You follow? Good. Get in line—behind me. If you want to be a thought leader, find your own followers.

Back to the question: “What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?”

We recently moved to Arkansas, located in the Upper South of the United States. Realizing it’s warmer down here than in the Upper Midwest—Minnesota and Wisconsin, specifically—relatives from those parts recently came to visit. Well, we told a few friends about the upcoming get-together and, after the relatives came and went, one of our Arkansan friends apologized effusively for not bringing over some food to share with our kin, but we responded: “No problem. We’re from up north, where people don’t do that. Up there, you’re responsible for feeding your own company. We don’t know any better.”

To our friend, bringing food over to feed someone else’s company is normal. It’s the water she’s been swimming in all her life. But to us, for whom the rule has always been, “You invite the company, you deal with the consequences,” our friend’s Southern hospitality code was totally new. We’ve been swimming in different water.

What does this have to do with the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International? On 17-19 March, STTI is sponsoring the Creating Healthy Work Environments conference, and “environments” is another word for the water we swim in. To highlight some of the topics that will be addressed at the conference, we’ve published a series of articles in Reflections on Nursing Leadership titled “Nursing, heal thyself!” that focuses on incivility, bullying, lateral violence, and confrontational communication.

All seven articles relate in some way to the water we swim in. One that speaks directly to the idea of “normal” is the article by Lois Marshall. Looking back on 27 years in nursing, she tells newcomers to the profession that although “we live in a time when incivility is often portrayed as the ‘norm,’ acceptable in some situations or a given in our fast-paced technological world, I am here to tell you that neither is true.” I hope you take the time to read every article in the series.

Lateral violence, a nursing epidemic?
There are tools available to prevent it.
By Sara Germann and Shannon Moore

Incivility is not normal, and it’s certainly not acceptable
Doing what’s right is not always easy, but it’s always necessary.
By Lois Marshall

When bullies rule
Rules for spotting and addressing workplace bullying.
By Laura Dzurec

The ‘R factor’ in nursing
R is for relationships, RA for its evil twin.
By Cheryl Dellasega and Jared Dougherty

When confrontation is needed
How to prepare for those difficult conversations.
By Miranda Cassity

What can a committee do to create a respectful and trusting workplace?
A lot. The numbers are in, and this Canadian program is working.
By Joanne Olson and Joanne Profetto-McGrath

The path to organizational civility is marked PFOC
It leads to a healthy workplace!
By Cynthia Clark

Why would you change something when it’s all you know? Good question, but we’re not fish. We have the capacity to lift our heads above the water we swim in, look around, and make a decision to change our predatory environment, to reject bullying and incivility, and embrace a different way. In my previous column titled “The power of decision,” I wrote, “Even routine decisions have lasting effect, but then there are those that, as described in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” make all the difference—if not in the world at large, in the lives of individual people.” The upcoming Creating Healthy Work Environments conference takes a significant step in doing just that.

“It’s all I’ve ever known” is very similar to the ubiquitous “It’s how we’ve always done it.” Both observations reflect lack of exposure—or lack of desire—for something better. I hope these articles “whet/wet” your appetite for what could be in your workplace, in our society, in our world.

James E. Mattson is editor of Reflections on Nursing Leadership.

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